NASAs astronaut selection process

In the 1959 group, the selection process was primarily a biomedical experimental study. No one had selected people for space flight training before, so there was no previous experience to draw upon. Originally tailored for the Mercury programme, the selection criteria were amended and broadened for the second and third groups as experience was gained. Those chosen for Group 4 (the scientist-astronauts) were expected to be assigned to later Apollo missions and follow-on programmes. As Mercury gave way to Gemini and then Apollo, the requirements for crew participation also changed, along with the volume inside the spacecraft, the mission profile and the scientific payloads and objectives. This further refined the selection requirements.16

Selection and training for Mercury had to allow for unknown or untested demands on each astronaut. As well as relying on their previous piloting skills, the Mercury astronauts had to be trained to operate the spacecraft systems, activate small, simple experiments, make scientific observations, and become the primary medical subject, all in an environment that no one had yet explored.

For Gemini astronauts, who would endure missions of up to fourteen days operating as a two-man team, the primary objectives were rendezvous, docking and station-keeping, and the first spacewalks (EVA - Extra Vehicular Activity). But Gemini also had a far more extensive programme of experiments and scientific observations to perform, all of which required the astronauts to develop additional skills in a range of academic subjects.

In the early planning for Apollo, it was suggested that the third man should be a scientifically-trained observer, as the objective of the flights was the scientific exploration of the Moon. But it was soon recognised that this third crew member would also have to be able to fly either the Command or Lunar Modules equally as well as his two pilot-astronaut colleagues. It was therefore clear that in addition to science, piloting skills would have to be included in their training prior to assignment to a flight crew.

For the predominantly military selections of 1959-63, medical testing was conducted at the Lovelace Clinic in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the Wright-Patterson Aerospace Medical Center in Dayton, Ohio. For the 1965 selection, these evaluations moved to the USAF Aerospace Medical Center at Brooks Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas.

By early 1962, with the experience of the first astronaut selection and the opening missions in the Mercury programme completed, NASA's basic training format for pilot-astronauts evolved into a process that would be followed, with few amendments, until the end of the decade. Based on USAF biomedical studies, a four-part evaluation programme was developed that could identify those candidates with the greatest potential for meeting the requirements of an astronaut. Those who failed to meet these requirements were medically disqualified from further participation in the selection process. The tests and criteria would then preclude applicants with:17

• Significant diseases or abnormalities, such as peptic ulcers, diabetes, gall bladder stones, and other conditions which could interfere with a prolonged space flight mission.

• Predisposition to disease or to limited performance capability, such as obesity in persons with borderline glucose tolerance tests.

• Complex evaluation of mental and character dynamics, including motivation, intellectual ability and learning aptitude, emotional adaptability and maturity.

• Physiological capacity under different loads and stresses, including maximum exertion, automatic control of the cardiovascular system, hyperventilation and breath holding.

For the 1965 selection of the first scientist-astronauts, the overall procedures varied only slightly from those used for the preceding pilot groups. The main difference was the involvement of the National Academy of Sciences in determining each candidate's professional scientific competence and academic qualifications. As with the pilots, past medical histories were screened and those candidates found to have "disqualifying defects'' were no longer considered for selection. New medical examinations for the remainder would then be conducted at the USAF Aerospace Medical Center at Brooks AFB in San Antonio. Finally, the remaining candidates appeared before the Astronaut Selection Board, after which the new intake would be selected.

As the 1965 candidates did not have the extensive medical documentation that was mandatory for the military pilots as part of their service history, it was originally decided to repeat the medical evaluations, including the stress testing, at Wright Aerospace Medical Laboratory, following those conducted at Brooks AFB. However, as this procedure had already been deleted for the new pilot candidates that would be selected in 1966, Dr. Charles Berry, the medical member of the NASA Selection Board, concluded that such additional testing was unwarranted for the scientist-astronaut applications. He also supported the general NASA decision that extensive environmental stress testing was no longer required for new astronaut candidates, based on the experience of the first three groups and the flight results from the six completed manned Mercury missions.

As the 1965 candidates were all drawn from the nation's scientific community, their medical records varied considerably in frequency and depth, compared to those of the three previous pilot groups. In order to retain flight status, pilots underwent a regular annual physical that was far more extensive than most of the scientist-astronaut candidates had even considered, let alone been through before. The scientist candidates with previous military and flying service could obviously provide such in-depth medical records, but there remained a high proportion of civilian candidates with no such documentation, as they had never served in any branch of the US armed forces. Applications from some of the candidates revealed a litany of medical problems. The ensuing medical examinations revealed cases of myopia, nasal polyps, varicose veins, and inguinal hernias among the candidates, a major reason for the lower than expected number of finalists.

The characteristics, physical and overall abilities of the successful candidates were perhaps best summarised in the 1985 book The Real Stuff by Atkinson and Shafritz, which commented on all those who were selected to the programme between 1959 and 1969:

"Overall, the astronaut applicants who were accepted into the [astronaut] program were found, upon intensive physical and psychological evaluation, to be healthy specimens. They were well organised, pragmatic, concretely orientated, aggressive people of action; the successful candidates tended to handle sensitive interpersonal relationships rather distantly. They derived significant personal satisfaction from mastery and competence in increasingly complex flying vehicles and technical pursuits. They possessed self-confidence from realistically assessing their own capabilities, although they spent little time in introspection. The physical prerequisites for scientist-astronauts were relaxed slightly as the space vehicle environment became less physically demanding and more comfortable.''18

By early 1965, the 400 applications under consideration for the first scientist-astronaut intake were being processed by the National Academy ofSciences. NASA's Director of Flight Crew Operations, Deke Slayton, was hoping the NAS panel might recommend ten geologists and ten doctors, which would allow the space agency to select three of each for pilot and astronaut training: "That way, we would end up with at least one geologist and one doctor for one of the earlier Apollo crews, which was all I planned to use.''19 When the selection options were expanded to include physicists, meteorologists and astronomers, had Slayton's desire for ten per category been followed, it would have led to a selection group of between fifty and sixty candidates. But the NAS was unable to find a pool large enough and nominated only sixteen candidates to NASA in April 1965. This was just as well, as NASA Headquarters was only looking for between ten and fifteen in the group.

SCIENTISTS AS COSMONAUTS

While NASA was debating and evolving the selection of its first scientist-astronaut group, a selection process was also under way in the Soviet Union. To help satisfy future demands, a group of cosmonaut trainees from the Soviet Academy of Sciences

(Akademiya Nauk - AN) was being created. Like their American colleagues, gaining assignment to any flights would prove to be a huge challenge for these candidates. In fact (unlike the astronauts), none of the scientist-cosmonauts selected under this plan ever made it into space.

Initially, the Soviet programme to put cosmonauts into space aboard the single seat Vostok spacecraft meant there was no need to select scientists for space flight. The spacecraft was developed by the designers of rockets and missiles, and automated systems were incorporated into the vehicle. Vostok's primary objective was to prove that a human could survive the rigours of launch and orbital space flight and return to Earth. Science was not high on the agenda.

The Soviet AN did develop a programme of scientific observations in the early years of the space programme. These included observations and investigations of the surface of the Earth, its oceans and atmosphere; near-Earth and interplanetary space; the Moon, the planets of the solar system and our sun; and other astronomical targets and phenomena. But, even on the later space station missions, research in these and other scientific fields was conducted by cosmonauts who were military pilots and engineers, civilian engineers, test pilots and a few physicians, and not those from the team of Academy of Sciences cosmonauts.20

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